VYKSA, Russia – Russia's political opposition faces an uphill battle against President Vladimir Putin in next year's election. But it is finding some support sprouting up in unlikely places — the sleepy provincial towns like Vyksa.
In the "Image" hair salon where patrons are greeted by the high-pitched whine of blow dryers, they also are met by a poster promoting the candidacy of Alexei Navalny, Russia's most popular opposition politician. "Navalny 2018: Trust people, don't let Moscow call the shots," it says.
The 41-year-old anti-corruption campaigner currently gets most of his support from intellectuals and youths in the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, while Putin draws his 80 percent approval rating from the sleepy provinces and industrial cities across Russia's 11 time zones.
That's why Navalny has planted political seeds in the provinces, opening campaign offices in dozens of cities and town in the vast country. Some of his supporters even have launched grassroots efforts on their own, including in Vyksa.
Home to 53,000 people, Vyksa is so small it isn't even served by trains, let alone airlines. The town, 300 kilometers (about 190 miles) east of Moscow, draws its relative prosperity from the steelworks that makes pipelines for Russia's natural gas monopoly Gazprom. But Vyksa's businessmen are increasingly worried that Putin's aggressive foreign policy, which has battered the ruble and cut consumer demand, is ruining their livelihoods.
In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Navalny's longshot campaign is populated by trendy, Instagram-loving youths who carry tote bags emblazoned with his name and watch videos on YouTube channels that broadcast his message outside of the monopoly of state-owned television.
In Vyksa, two middle-aged, self-employed men — store owner Vyacheslav Burmistrov and attorney Igor Kakonin — sat in an office next door to the hair salon earlier this month, plotting how to fight a local ban on canvassing for their candidate.
Town officials in July banned canvassing, saying the campaign has not formally begun. Navalny supporters contested the ban in court and lost, and now are waiting to appeal.
Navalny himself is barred by law from seeking office until 2021 because of convictions on what he called trumped-up fraud charges. And he faces steep odds in trying to unseat Putin, who in addition to controlling state-run TV enjoys strong support from regional governors and has vast financial resources.
But Navalny, who inspired anti-Putin rallies in 2011-12 and organized protests of official corruption this year, is pushing ahead anyway. He figures he can pressure the Kremlin to allow him to run and is building a network of supporters to secure the 1 million needed signatures.
Like many in Vyksa, the 57-year-old Burmistrov once worked at the steel mill. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the factory was in disarray, Burmistrov began selling bootleg music tapes in a local market to make a living.
Then he opened a hardware store, and another. The two-story Kontinent, with 40 employees, stands on the outskirts of Vyksa, in a neighborhood of log cabins where Burmistrov was born.
The decline of the economy and the bite of Western sanctions have taken a toll. Consumer demand crashed in 2014 and Burmistrov had to rent out one of the stores. Sales fell from one laptop a day to six per month, an employee said.
Burmistrov also served six years in the local legislature, where he said he saw how Vyksa sent most of its taxes to Moscow, while town officials did not have the power or money to address local issues.
"I began to realize that change in Russia is possible only from the top," he said. "We need to devolve power so that we could be able to solve our problems locally."
He has teamed up with Kakonin, a 49-year-old lawyer, to host Vyksa.Live, a weekly YouTube show modeled on Navalny's broadcast, which typically gets between half a million to 1 million views.
Sitting against a "Navalny 2018" poster, the stern-looking Burmistrov and the jovial Kakonin said their show discusses problems like roads with potholes, dried-up wells and rundown playgrounds. Several times after raising an issue, town officials rushed to fix it, Kakonin said proudly.
Campaigning for Navalny can be dangerous. He has had green dye splashed on his face that damaged his vision in an attack he blamed on a Kremlin supporter. Dozens of Navalny activists have been detained for handing out leaflets; in the southern city of Krasnodar, pro-Kremlin activists have repeatedly ransacked his campaign office; and the campaign coordinator for the Siberian city of Barnaul was stabbed.
For Burmistrov, the prospect of his business failing is scarier.
"In 1991, we were all equal, we had nothing to lose," he said of Russia's political upheaval at the time. "Now I have something to lose, but we're doing it anyway, and we stopped being afraid. Businesses started shutting down. I realize that it will only get worse later on if we don't stop this decline."
Navalny's campaign is unprecedented in Russia, where political life has been dormant for nearly two decades since Putin came to power. While he pays campaign staff in the big cities, Navalny mostly relies on unpaid volunteers in places like the gritty coal-mining town of Vorkuta and the picturesque ski resort of Gorno-Altaysk.
Before the campaign ban went into effect in Vyksa, Burmistrov and others handed out leaflets on the street every weekend. Now wary of getting into trouble with the law, Burmistrov and seven other activists, some wearing "Navalny" T-shirts, sat on benches outside the town's main park on a recent evening, leaflets in hand.
Daniil Shytov beamed when asked how he would vote when he turns 18 next year.
"Navalny. All of my friends support Navalny," said Shytov, who said they all watched the anti-corruption videos.
But many in Vyksa mistrust Navalny, who is portrayed on state TV as a criminal. One story circulated in town that Navalny would close the steel mill. In fact, the factory's exports have been jeopardized by new U.S. sanctions approved earlier this month. European companies working with Gazprom might have to seek waivers from the U.S. government to go ahead with construction and repair projects on the Russian gas pipelines.
"The truth is, if the factory stops, it will stop because of the sanctions. And who brought us the sanctions? Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin)," Burmistrov said.
Workers pouring out of the Vyksa Metallurgical Plant at the end of the shift last week were wary about talking politics and had little faith that life would improve.
Crane operator Anastasia Kozarova conceded there is "a grain of truth" in Navalny's reports of widespread government corruption, but she says she will stick with Putin.
"I don't see people who are better at politics than him," she said. "I have a lot of issues with him, but he achieved a lot during his presidency."
Meeting at a roadside cafe on the outskirts of Vyksa, some of the Navalny supporters recalled how the town reacted to one of the biggest geopolitical events of their lives — the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev by Communist hard-liners in August 1991 that eventually brought the demise of the Soviet Union.
Nothing happened, they said. No street protests, no Lenin statues toppled or portraits taken down, no political activity.
Now, however, they said Vyksa is waking up.
"So many people are scared. I used to be scared, but now I just don't give a damn," said 52-year-old cafe owner Alexander Alexeyev, who described how he has had to slash his prices to keep customers.
Alexeyev said he went to the anti-Putin rallies in Moscow in 2012, but was disappointed that more did not join him from Vyksa.
"If 50 people had come from Vyksa, 50 from another town and another, it (would have been) a million of us in Moscow," he said.